In the latest edition of Express Adda, in Delhi, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, now Thomas W Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, spoke about his Indian passport, days in Calcutta, the UPA government and PM Narendra Modi in a two-hour-long conversation moderated by The Indian Express Contributing Editor Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Deputy Editor Seema Chishti
Life in Calcutta
When I arrived in Calcutta, I was enchanted by the city. I went to Presidency College, where I didn’t stay in the hostel but in the YMCA hostel some distance away. The college, the coffee house, the hostel and the neighbourhood were very fascinating to me. I was coming from Shantiniketan, and Calcutta, the urban town, had a sense of mystique for us. When I was six or seven, my cousin told me that, if you got overrun by a bullock cart, they wouldn’t let you enter Calcutta for a year. So, I was very careful not to get overrun by a bullock cart.
Presidency College itself was a place of real excitement for me. I made many close friends there; most of them are dead now. I think the excitement of conversation was truly astounding there. There was really no subject that I didn’t know about in general. There was a tolerance in Calcutta which was important. Politically, I think it was brought out very clearly by Satyajit Ray in movies such as Mahanagar. The terrible thing that happens in Mahanagar in Calcutta is in contrast to say Salaam Bombay, which is also very exciting in many ways. But pretty much everybody in the movie, Salaam Bombay, is evil, very nasty, very cruel too. Almost no one in Mahanagar is nasty. They are all trying to help each other. But still, dreadful things happen. There was a basic sympathy. It still has the lowest murder rate among all the cities by a long margin. There’s a kind of cerebral discourse offered by the city, of which Rabindranath would be a very good example. He may have started Shantiniketan, but he was a Calcutta guy and the importance of relating your intellectual creativity to that was really quite extraordinary.
Impact of politics on Calcutta’s intellectual life
I think the Left has a lot to do with that. But the Left was also theoretical in nature. I remember one instance: the English cricket team was in Calcutta playing in Eden Gardens and the Captain of the team, a friend of mine, a very good batsman, wasn’t doing very well with the bat. However, the team was doing fine. He said that he wasn’t going to celebrate the New Year. We don’t do New Year’s eve very much in Calcutta.
I took Mike Brearley and later Mike told me it’s the quietest New Year’s eve he had ever attended. That quietness is explained by what happened to the Calcutta industries. I think there were two phases. The first was when a kind of union leadership that led to the decimation of the
industries played a major negative part. By the time the Left had learnt the lessons and decided that they wanted industries back in Kolkata, the game was played by the other side, holding the hand of the Tatas and their leadership.
On holding an Indian passport
I do believe that we have multiple identities. One of the ideas that I got from Rabindranath very early is that there is no conflict in the fact that we can enjoy Indian culture and appreciate Shakespeare and violin and Tennyson. You will say that if I take any other passport I’ll have to give up my Indian passport and that I didn’t want to do. I think there are some benefits in long queues because you get to chat. I had to make an unscheduled stop in Bangkok while going to Tokyo… Indians need visa everywhere and I was in a queue for a good three hours and I was behind a woman who was going to an IIT event in Bombay. This was at the time when the Tsunami had hit that area. So, I chatted with her about what was going on, what the problem was and why she was going to… If you can stand, I think it’s a very nice way of spending your time.
On former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the UPA government
Let me begin by saying that I knew him as an undergraduate and I was also his student at Cambridge. I liked him a lot and still do. I think he is a very wonderful human being. The first point is that when you look at the record (of the UPA), it’s not that nothing was achieved. India learnt how to deal with storms in a way that New Orleans couldn’t and India did it with hardly any casualties. India also has the second highest growth rate. It still has one of the record numbers of growth in history. So my first point is what made it so difficult for the party to actually claim credit for what they had actually done. It’s a deep question for me. For me, if there was a failure, it was the failure of articulation. I think, if they did an analysis of what happened, I don’t think it should begin by saying what went wrong, but why is it that that what went right got such little airing.
Second, yes, there were quite a few things that went wrong, particularly in the second period. I think if Manmohan had stepped down after the first term, he would have been remembered as an enormously successful PM. Even within the limitations of articulation, I don’t think the second period went well. In many ways, the coalition, in fact the culture of not doing anything without being compensated, which is a big problem in many countries, became an increasingly grating factor in the government. Whether Manmohan Singh in the position as the head of the coalition government and not the most important voice of the party could have dealt with it remains to be seen. You know when I was an undergraduate, I wouldn’t have thought that Manmohan would become the PM. He doesn’t have the natural sharpness or nastiness. I would expect him to be a great economist.
On Prime Minister
I think what happened to India is a failure of the state and governance, including the opposition parties. It was very difficult to get things through the Parliament. Now, for many years, it’s been possible to keep the Parliament shut for many days. And then you try to look at things that are possible to pass through the Parliament than those things that you would ideally like to do for the country. One of the things that Mr Modi did do is to give people a sense of faith that things can happen. It may not have been exactly the things that I would have liked but I think this is an achievement. This wouldn’t make my differences with Mr Modi on issues like secularism go away but, on the other hand, if we don’t recognise it, we’re missing out on something very important… For several years, I have been writing about open defecation. The second great thing I’m praising about Mr Modi now is that, on top of the Red Fort, he said many good things — the lack of toilets, the fear that women suffer from and the undernourishment and, of course, then it gets attention because of where it’s coming from. Not that so far so much has happened, but at least it’s there.
On differences with the NDA government
To me, the biggest issue with this government is the issue of social cohesion, and the issue of culture, and the fact that India is a multi-religious, multi-cultural country. That recognition is very important to me. And it’s such a central recognition throughout Indian history. At the Nalanda University, of which I am the chancellor at this time, one of the interesting things, is how Hiuen Tsang, who arrived in the seventh century, described the 10,000 residential students in the campus. Nalanda was the only institution of higher learning outside China to which any infant Chinese ever went for education. But he described two very striking things. He liked the observatory and second thing was the method of education, far less use of lecture and more use of debates and discussions. The culture of debating, the culture of having different values and being an argumentative Indian is a very deep part of Indian culture. And I think that culture requires support rather than privileging it to any particular part, no matter how majoritarian that position may be.
(Transcribed by Udit Roy and Ranaditya Baruah)